95-Year-Old Mouse in Legal Mouse Trap2024-01-18
On 1 January 2024, it had been 95 years since Mickey Mouse first showed up in the short film “Steamboat Willy”. Now, the early versions of the famous mouse are free to use by anyone. Or are they? David Johansson, Senior Lecturer in Civil Law at Karlstad Business School, talks us through what copyright is and why it is important for a legal practitioner to understand the legislation surrounding intellectual property rights.
Lately, several articles have made it seem as if Mickey Mouse is now public domain and therefore free to use by anyone. This is just partly true. What’s happened is that the copyright protection for the three Mickey Mouse short films produced in 1928 has expired. The three films are “Plane Crazy”, “The Gallopin’ Gaucho” and the more famous “Steamboat Willie”.
In Sweden, as in many other countries, the baseline is that copyright protection remains for 70 years following the death of the creator. But in this case, the work is created in the US. This means that the copyright protection in Sweden isn’t valid since the US copyright has expired.
– The copyright protection that has expired isn’t necessarily for Mickey Mouse as a character, but rather the first films specifically and how Mickey Mouse is characterised in them, says David Johansson. Mickey Mouse had a different look in those films and he was also a very different kind of personality compared to how we know him now. Today he wears red pants, he is kind and he is generally a happy guy. In the first appearances, he honestly acted like a swine who tormented animals and forced himself on Minnie Mouse with unwanted sexual invitations. This is the character who isn't copyright-protected anymore.
The Mickey Mouse films are still protected in several other countries. Disney also has Mickey Mouse trademarked, which means that as long they have a valid trademark registration or as long as Mickey Mouse is established and known, they have protection. Consequently, Disney can still object to others using Mickey Mouse for commercial purposes.
– In short, it’s not a good idea to just use Mickey Mouse without Disney’s approval, says David Johansson. By the way, Disney is one of the most zealous companies when it comes to protecting their rights.
So this applies to the first version of Mickey Mouse – will more versions of the character be free to use in the years to come?
– The copyright for the later films and characterisations of Mickey Mouse will end, but it may very well be that the trademark protection still applies. And regardless of any copyright or trademark protections, you cannot market products with Mickey Mouse in a way that gives the consumers the impression that the products are made by Disney.
Why are there different terms of protection for copyright in the US and Europe?
– Because all countries decide their own laws, says David Johansson. Due to globalisation, various countries have made efforts to close the gaps in terms of copyright laws, but historically the approach to copyright has been varied.
The US is a comparatively young country and their economic development was, in part, dependent on shorter terms of protection. In general, you could say that the US has offered weaker copyright protection compared to European countries. Throughout the years, the US has made changes to its legislation so that it is more similar to Europe, but the changes have come into force later and don't fully cover older works such as the 1928 Mickey Mouse films.
What other famous copyrighted works have become public domain?
– Selma Lagerlöf’s literary works became public domain a couple of years ago, says David Johansson. As for trademarks, a common example is the Swedish word “mack” to refer to gas stations. In that case, “Mackmeter” was a brand used by a single company. The company went under, but the word carried on. Since there was no longer anyone who claimed the rights to the word, it was free to use by everyone. That situation differs a lot from the situation with Mickey Mouse, of course, and considering Disney is still a fully functioning company, they will be able to stop unlawful use of Mickey Mouse.
In what way does the copyright for music, text, logos and characters differ?
– From a copyright perspective, there is no legal difference, says David Johansson. Everything that could be considered original, insofar as it’s considered the creator’s own intellectual property, can be protected no matter what kind of creation it is. As for brands, everything that can be considered a distinctive element in relation to an entrepreneur’s or company’s products can be trademarked. In practice, theatre may be a bit more difficult to trademark since it’s harder to imagine how a play can be used as a distinctive element for a product. But in theory, a plethora of things could be registered trademarks or become protected by being established.
You teach courses on this here at Karlstad Business School – what’s being taught on those courses?
– Our courses on intellectual property rights include everything from copyright and brands to design protection and patents. Students learn about how different things can be protected in various ways, how to assess the level and scope of the protection, as well as about the consequences of intellectual property infringement.
Why is it important for a legal practitioner to know this?
– Intellectual property rights is a very important part of how society functions, not least from a business perspective. For many companies, intellectual property is their most important resource. A legal practitioner must know how to best navigate any issues that can arise in various kinds of organisations, and in many cases matters concerning intellectual property are at the centre. A legal practitioner should know how to best protect their intellectual property, to what extent others’ creations are protected and what the consequences of copyright infringement are.